Bishop Walker Nickless may have signed the decree that made the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, a diocesan shrine, but Father Thomas Hart credited the Holy Spirit with the idea. On Oct. 10, the grotto – long a tourist attraction and pilgrimage site – was designated a diocesan shrine for the purpose of promoting and perpetuating its function as “a sacred place to which numerous members of the faithful make pilgrimages for a special reason of piety.” The grotto has the only shrine designation in the Diocese of Sioux City and now is one of only two shrines in the state of Iowa. Des Moines has the diocesan shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and Divine Mercy, which had been known as the grotto at St. Anthony Parish in Des Moines. Work of the Holy Spirit Father Hart, who will serve as rector of the grotto in addition to his duties as pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, West Bend, felt the designation had some supernatural overtones. “I couldn’t sleep one night about four or five months ago, thinking about the grotto and how we were always worried about funding,” he said. “And the thought of it being a shrine suddenly came to me. I think it was the work of the Holy Spirit.” Father Hart proposed the concept to Andy Milam of Humboldt, church director state council, Iowa Knights of Columbus. It was, in a way, providential because Milam was meeting with other state KC officers on July 14 and invited Father Hart to make a presentation. “I started to investigate how the Knights could help and just seemed to get stonewalled,” Milam said. “So, I took it upon myself to lead an initiative to work for the grotto and get the Knights behind it before that July meeting.” From the discussion, it was clear the Knights wanted certain parameters met before they would support the grotto, explained Milam, who is district deputy for the KCs for Region 4. “Those included getting the bishop to decree the grotto a shrine and getting the diocesan councils to support the endeavor,” he said. “Once that happened, then the state council would become involved.” Canon law stipulations Father Hart and Milam approached Bishop Nickless Aug. 7 with the proposal, after the grotto board enthusiastically supported the idea. “I told the board I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Father Hart said. “I told them I might fail, but at least I tried.” “I was very interested with their proposal and frankly wondered why this hadn’t been pursued in the past,” the bishop said. “When you think about it, it’s kind of obvious,” Father Hart said. “Father (Paul) Dobberstein and Father (Louis) Greving focused on the building of the grotto. Pastors who followed them supported and sustained the grotto. I just felt it was time to do things differently.” According to the Code of Canon Law, the local ordinary may approve the statutes of a diocesan shrine. The term signifies a church or other sacred place to which the faithful make pilgrimages for a particular pious reason. “I felt confident the shrine designation would put it on the map and make it easier to get funding,” Bishop Nickless said. National and International potential Father Hart is now starting the paperwork with a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to make the grotto a national shrine. “That’s a lot more complicated,” Father Hart acknowledged. “We have to get the other Iowa bishops to approve, submit a lot of documentation and pictures, and accounting documents to justify our request. Then, someone will have to visit and inspect the grotto before the announcement can be made.” “With each step taking place, the visibility of the shrine increases exponentially,” Milam said. “Of course, what we are hoping for is a revenue bump for that. Our goal is to petition the KCs for a national campaign that would result in getting a $2 million endowment in place.” The next step might be pursuing an international shrine designation through the Holy See, Father Hart noted. “We are already international in nature,” he said. “We get visitors from many nations, like China, Poland, Uganda and Germany. We average tens of thousands of tourists each year.” “It’s the world’s largest grotto and considered the eighth wonder of the world,” Milam added. The shrine would also be a boon for the small town of West Bend, Father Hart added. “I would imagine it would heighten awareness of the community and put West Bend into the national spotlight,” he said. “There absolutely would be a spillover effect with people eating in our restaurants, buying items, getting gas.” Spiritual component Although Father Hart and Milam stressed the need for funding, both said the spiritual aspects play a large role in proceeding with their plans. “People have repeatedly shared with me what a spirit of inspiration the grotto has been in their lives,” Father Hart said. Milam has his own spiritual connection to West Bend. “A conservative number of times I have visited the grotto would be 100,” he said. “Since I grew up in Humboldt, I’ve been visiting the grotto since I was 8 years old and I’m 42 now.” Milam continued, “The grotto is a visible catechesis for the faithful and actually all Christians. You can see the entire life of Christ in about an hour. The importance of what it conveys is immeasurable.” Other possibilities With the impetus for the grotto’s shrine designation in place, Father Hart is thinking of pursuing a designation for Sts. Peter and Paul Church – where he has served as pastor since 2008 – to be named a basilica. Currently, the Diocese of Des Moines has the Basilica of St. John in Des Moines. It was elevated to a minor basilica in 1989. The Archdiocese of Dubuque has St. Francis Xavier Basilica in Dyersville, elevated to a minor basilica in 1956. The Vatican designates minor basilicas. This year, Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu, Hawaii and St. Fidelis Church in Victoria, Kan., were designated as minor basilicas. Worldwide, there are more than 1,600 minor basilicas; only 79 of them are in the United States. A minor basilica must be a center of active and pastoral liturgy with a vibrant Catholic community and may have particular historical, artistic or religious importance. The paperwork can take almost a year and is sent to the USCCB for approval before being forwarded to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. “I think anything is possible,” Father Hart insisted. National Register of Historic Places The Grotto of the Redemption inWest Bend was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
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